You may have read my bits about “Ron the brickie”. He was sponsored to Australia as a young lad of thirteen years a few years after the 2nd WW. He left behind his mother and siblings when he came to Australia … a difficult situation not of his making. He went to school for a couple of years here, then worked for his uncle in the building trade. Like any number of refugees from war-torn countries, he came with a mix of memories both fair and foul. He is old now and not in good health, although he has worked right up till just the last few years in the building trade as a brickie/builder.
Of course, I have taken the usual liberties with the construction, names and continuity of the story-line. But I have to mark the seemingly one constant in these desperate migration situations … it is that perhaps the greatest loss and sorrow is carried by the women and children left behind.
It went like this:
Saying Goodbye to Ferrucchio
Carmina Serafina stood stolidly in the opening of the front door of her house, She filled the opening all ways, that is, width as well as height! She was not a handsome woman, she was splay-footed and big-boned. As a young woman, the other youngsters in the district used to call her “Carmina di cavalla” (Carmina the horse!). She stood there smiling at her visitors that were just alighting from the village “taxi” that brought them from the railway station of the provincial city of that region. Behind Carmina stood the flat impassive facade of the stone house that had been built around the turn of the century, and behind the house stood the massive, solid earth that is the Dolomites of Northern Italy.
Carmina smiled. She was working a tea-towel around and around in her hands.
“And what brings such riff-raff to the door of an honest woman?” she cried in mock admonishment. The aged, balding male of the couple of visitors pulled up as if in shock, one hand stalling his wife in her steps and with a surprised look on his face exclaimed:
“Did she say honest woman!? … Santa Cielo! My dear … we must have the wrong address!” and he turned bent-backed as though to sneak away.
“Come on with you, Pietro, you and your foolishness,” chided his wife … then as she was slower on the up-take; “Anyway, she is half way right“ … and she strode on arms out-stretched to embrace the woman in the doorway. The man called Pietro stayed on the spot, his arms akimbo toward the women embracing, his lips frozen in a silent “o” just waiting for the pause to expostulate mockingly his innocence. He didn’t get the chance as the women didn’t let off with the embracing so he dropped his arms to his side, sighed and came forward carrying their suitcases.
“The willing horse gets the heaviest load,” he said as he plonked the cases on the doorstep.
“Brother, welcome, welcome,” Carmina hugged him, they kissed and then held each other at arms length and as if on signal hugged again …
“Good to see you caro sorella, good to see you again,” Pietro murmured softly, all had the wetness of tears in their eyes.
“Ah, but it’s a sadness that Giorgio and Biaccio are not with us now,” wept Carmina.
“That bloody war,” she said bitterly. Pietro just pat his hand several times on her shoulder as Carmina turned and led them into the interior of the house.
She sat them at the kitchen table whilst she prepared the coffee percolator. They exchanged news of each other’s family and events as they climbed out of the pit that the mention of Carmina’s deceased husband and eldest child had drawn them.
Pietro was a builder and had traveled with his wife to Australia long before the war and had done reasonably well over there through their hard work and diligence. They had two children there. The children did not accompany them on this trip back to the “old country” as they were here on “business”.
“So tell me, Carmina, how have things been here since the war?” Pietro asked his sister.
Carmina pinched her thumb and index finger together in that peculiar Italian way and shook her hand meaningfully. She then carelessly tossed the tea-towel over the left shoulder.
“That God is my witness … brutto! … cativo! … I tell you, brother, that last year when their army retreated through here … they stripped the countryside of food … every morsel … and they shot those they found hiding anything away … ” Pietro’s mouth again formed an “o” and he too shook his hand in a gesture as he turned to look at his wife … “just so” Carmina continued “against the wall … boom! I tell you … afterwards, we had to dig the potatoes that were overlooked out of the frozen earth … everything gone … Guiseppina, she lost two children, the old people died … I think they let themselves go for the sake of the young ones. Then we had to boil the grass and drink the liquid … like cows … the grass even … but then, here we are (a sigh), things are slowly getting better, but the country is ruined, ruined … always trouble, always corruption … that is why I sent you the letter, I pray God you thought the proposition over. I’ve lost two of my men, I don’t want to lose Ferrucchio.”
She turned and leaned with both hands on the kitchen table in front of her brother then she stood up, automatically plucked the tea-towel off her shoulder and rolled it over her hands again as if it was a nervous habit, for she always seemed to have that tea-towel handy.
Pietro sat with his hands clasped together on the table, his lips pursed and a soft whistle escaped from them at the telling of his sister’s story. He sat back then with one hand resting on his knee and the other flat on the kitchen table. He was thinking careful.
“Yes, I have thought it over caro, I have,” he spoke quietly ”and I will take the boy back with me to Australia … but you, Carmina, have you considered the consequences?”
“I, Pietro? Why, yes, yes otherwise why would I write you the letter?”
“But caro sorella, do you realize how far it is to that country? It isn’t just the other side of Rome you know … you may never see Ferrucchio again,” he rapped his hand on the kitchen table in emphasis.
Carmina turned from their eyes, her eyes closed and she held back the thought while she prepared the coffee.
“I know, maybe, but … something must be done for the child … I have Enrico who is now engaged to be married next summer and then there is the three young children I have to care for and I see no future here for Ferrucchio if he stays … yes … I have thought of it often and I still say … take him.”
The last two words she spoke in a whisper so that Pietro and his wife exchanged doubtful glances.
“Well,” the wife spoke up “we will be here for a month and you will still have that time to become certain Carmina.” And the talk drifted onto other subjects.
The month passed quickly for Carmina. She thought over her proposition to Pietro again and again. Sometimes she was certain of the good of it, sometimes, as a mother she rejected the idea, she feigned to lose her favourite child to a distant land. “But one day soon he will no longer be a child,” she thought out loud, “and then what?” It was this conclusion that decided her in favour of his going.
One afternoon before the sun had slipped away completely over the mountains and the snow-capped ridges softened to a gentle hue of rose, she stood outside the front door and called for Ferrucchio to come home. She had a unique way of calling for him that differed from the other calls to her children and although Carmina, with her peasant-like sturdiness appeared clumsy, she had the voice of an angel.
She remembered with a sudden sadness how, many years before, when Giorgio was courting her, they used to “sing” to each other across the valley in the sweet spring air. Carmina was working the fields on one side and Giorgio was in the olive orchard on the other and they would tease each other with parts of Neapolitian arias and folk songs. Giorgio’s deep manly voice swirling underneath supporting Carmina’s higher thrills … and they would always end laughing at each other for the sheer joy of it all …
She started her call from a low note and built up the sound toward the rolling trill of the middle part of Ferrucchio’s name and drew out the tail end with a flowing of mellow but strong continuous tone … she would do this over and over again till this strange cry become, with the intercepting waves of rebounding echos, almost like one continuous song that trilled amongst the nearby peaks and washed through the trees on the banks of the little streams tumbling down from the snows. She would keep calling till the answering song from Ferrucchio blended into hers and she would smile at its cognizance and, taking the tea-towel off her shoulder, wipe it over her hands in contentment.
Ferrucchio had returned.
It was late afternoon, the younger children were out at play, Enrico, now the eldest, was still at work in the fields. Carmina had called Ferrucchio in to have a talk with him alone.
“Ferrucchio … you’re twelve years now … nearly thirteen.”
“Yes,” said the boy, perplexed, and a bit cautious at the seriousness of his mother’s features.
“Ferrucchio … you will be going away soon with your Uncle and Aunt. You will be going to live in Australia with them.”
“Yes, I know, we talked of it before,” he replied wearily.
“But listen Ferrucchio … you will be going a long way away and I .. I may not see you for a long, long time … I just want to sit with you a moment … and talk with you of some things.”
“About Papa?” Ferrucchio raised his eyebrows.
“What about your father?”
“How did he die?”
Carmina looked into her sons’ eyes and turned away, for of all her children he resembled his father the most.
“He … he died quite swiftly,” she parried.
“How?” Ferrucchio persisted.
Carmina took a deep breath.
“Giorgio was taken hostage by the soldiers … he and ninety nine other men … and … then … they shot them all.” She bit her lower lip to stop trembling.
“Like Angelo’s father?” Ferrucchio asked softly.
“Like Angelo’s father,” Carmina nodded.
“Si, yes, Amelia’s.”
“And Francesco’s father?” he continued.
“Yes, yes!” she answered curtly.
“And … ”
“Yes, the lot! They shot the bloody lot of them,” Carmina cried and then stood up angrily and snatching the tea-towel off her shoulder, rolled it around her hands, then placed it gently to her mouth while the memory faded.
“I’m sorry Ferrucchio … the memory … .” She sat down again.
“I understand, mama,” Ferrucchio spoke quietly. Carmina looked up at his eyes, so young, so clear.
“Yes,” she thought, “maybe he does understand.”
“So I will go with Uncle and Auntie and he will teach me to be a stone mason in Australia.” Ferrucchio parrotted out the plan he had been told of weeks before. He had no objections, he was always hungry here, a lot of his friends had gone away, some had died, it would be an adventure for him.
“Yes, Ferrucchio … but I don’t want you to think I just sent you away. I am doing this for your future. There is so little here for a man to do … But you must write to me often, you must keep in touch, for I don’t know when I will see you again … ,” she stopped and put the towel to her face again. Ferrucchio leant forward and embraced his mother around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.
“I will, I will, Mama … I promise,” he cooed. Carmina wiped away the tears and stood up.
“Well then … I must pack your things, for it’s only a couple of days left,” and she turned to go to her bedroom.
Ferrucchio sat alone in the kitchen for a moment and the evening glow from the valley window lit up the side of his face so it glowed golden. Carmina turned at her bedroom door and gently gasped at her child’s beauty.
“Ferrucchio,” she spoke, “you be a good man … ” And she turned away.
The early morning of departure was cold and the hills hung heavy with low cloud. It had started to snow for the first time for the season and the falling flakes muffled their voices and huddled the company with its pale embrace.
“I have the documents,” Pietro patted his coat pocket.
“I have packed an extra coat,” said Carmina.
“Ho! He won’t need it out there,” laughed Pietro “he’ll be getting around in his singlet!”
“Just the same,” Carmina remarked with certainty. “And you, Ferrucchio,” she chided “You won’t forget to write … you make sure he writes, Pietro, she frowned as she tugged and buttoned the collar of the boy’s coat.
“Mama!” Ferrucchio whined.
“Don’t you, ‘Mama’ me, I birthed you and raised you so now I won’t see you freeze to death … and you look after yourself too now that I won’t be around.”
“Mama!” Ferrucchio whined again.
“Carmina, caro,” Pietro laughed “he’s nearly a man now, let him dress himself!”
“And you brother, you make sure he becomes a good tradesman.” She chided.
“Ah si, si” Pietro nodded on and on.
“Well then,” Carmina stood back and snatched the towel off her shoulder and rubbed it over her hands.
“So,” spoke Pietro. “Time to depart.” And they all stood silently … then as to break the solemness of the moment, Pietro’s wife stepped forward and embraced Carmina.
“Don’t worry, Carmina caro … he’ll be fine, you’ll see, we’ll feed him up to a grand man,” and she smiled comfortingly at Carmina.
Carmina lowered her head and nodded as she tossed the towel over her shoulder again. Pietro kissed his sister and the little children. The older brother had said goodbye earlier and gone to work, but the three little children milled around their mothers dress. Ferrucchio kissed each in turn and they scurried back into the fold of the dress. He finally gave his mother an embrace and a kiss and climbed into the car. Pietro and his wife climbed into the car, then with some final word of comfort and cheerio, the car started off stickily in the new snow to drive down the road that swept along the side of the hill toward the village.
The car had gone just a little way when Ferrucchio leant out of the window to wave his hand and call some words.
“What’s that, Ferrucchio, what did you say?” Carmina cried to the going car.
“I didn’t hear, Mama,” the eldest girl said.
“Ferrucchio! … Ah, what did he say?” She stepped hurriedly forward and automatically snatched the tea-towel off her shoulder. “He’s gone, oh dear … Ferrucchio,” she whispered as she stepped quickly down the road to keep sight of the car, the soft new snow dappled on to her hair “They’re all gone now” she spoke to herself as she felt the finality of it all. “They’re all gone … Giorgio … Biacchio … now Ferrucchio,” and she spoke in a hollow-voiced cry as if trying to catch her breath. She had put on a brave face at the departure but now it had all deserted her, she felt so empty, a low hoarse whimper came with every breath and her long face contorted with her mouth agape.
“We’re here, Mama.” The girl child, now upset too, cried “I’ll stay with you Mama.”
“Ferrucchio,” Carmina called hopelessly as she hurried forward so as to keep the car in sight as if that very action would preserve the image of her child and the feeling of his presence would not just vanish, but it was all to no avail, hurrying, suddenly she slipped in the snow and fell on her thigh with one leg under her, she propped herself up on her left arm and brought the tea-towel up to her contorted face as she cried out in her despair ..
“Gone!” she cried. “Gesu, Gesu … all my men gone … why do mothers lose their children so … flesh of my flesh … oh, Gesu, send them to me … my Giorgio … that I can kiss the fear from his eyes … Biacchio that I can wipe the terror from his brow … send me my Ferrucchio that I may yet embrace him with my love … oh Gesu, Gesu … why is it women always lose their men … where do they go? … what happens to them? … oh Gesu, Gesu”.
She dropped her head and wept uncontrollably with the towel crumpled close to her mouth and the little children tugging at her clothes and worried and the eldest girl saying over and over …
“I won’t leave you, Mama, I won’t leave you, I won’t leave you … ”
But Carmina stayed humped in the snow and watched the car wind slowly down the hill toward the last twinkling lights of the village washed pale through the new falling snow.